Best Prices in the Industry

Best Prices in the Industry

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Choosing Card Printer Ribbons

Picking the right ribbon largely depends on the type of card you'll be printing on as well as the designs and features you had in mind

Questions that you need to ask to pick the right printer ribbon for a card printer.

  • What is the make and model of my plastic id card printing machine?
  • Print spot color or full color cards? Spot colors are one primary color.
  • What is the card being used for? Use overlay or lamination for harsh use.
  • How fast do I need the cards? Spot color printing is very, very fast.
  • Do I want security features in the ribbon? Available with some makes.
  • How many prints will I be making in the coming year? Ribbons officially have a one year shelf life although they do last somewhat longer. As ribbons age they tear more easily during printing. So you do not want to buy ribbons to last longer then six to ten months.
  • Would an automatic ribbon replenishment program save me time and money?

The first thing you should keep in mind is that the card printer ribbons are printer brand and printer model specific. Each printer needs a ribbon specifically designed for that printer. The safest bet is to use OEM ribbons. The non OEM ribbons need to be tested before purchase in large quantities. Manufacturers upgrade their printers’ printer driver. When they find that there is a non OEM ribbon on the market they will change settings and will make the third party ribbon’s print look less appealing. Overall, unless you are printing large volumes of cards and know how to change the internal temperature setting of your printhead, use an OEM ribbon designed for you specific make and specific model printer.

The ribbon’s color and other features are denoted with letters. YMC refers to the colors yellow, magenta, and cyan. A YMC ribbon will print a color card by combining the 3 primary colors. It will print black but it will not be as sharp as a black that is printed with a YMCK ribbon. The K stands for a black panel. If the ribbon is YMCKK, the second K in the ribbon description means it is designed to print black text on the reverse side of each card as well. Your printer must be a “dual sided” printer. Suffixes O and T refer to overcoat and topcoat options that provide some extra protection for cards that will not be laminated. There are ribbons with other panels including a UV panel available for some printers. Knowledgeable Customer Service Reps at ID Superstore will help you with your ribbon selection.

The two basic types of card printing are thermal transfer and dye sublimation. Either option can be used directly on the ID card or in re-transfer printing which deposits the image on the underside of a strip of clear plastic film and then bonds that film to the surface of the card. This latter method of imprinting offers an added level of resilience and can be applied to cards that contain RFID chips or other bumpy features. Thermal and dye sublimation re-transfer printing are top of the line technology, so look for these options if your industry needs the best in durability and imprint clarity.

About Thermal Printing Ribbons

Thermal printing works by melting resin or wax based ink off of the printer ribbon directly onto the card surface or re-transfer film. The printhead consists of many tiny heated pins aligned across a ceramic plate. The pins can be independently heated to release ink in just the right sequence on each card to recreate a digital image. The printhead remains in one place and the ribbon passes between it and the substrate (the surface being imprinted). The more pins the printhead has, the higher dots per inch resolution the final image can achieve.

For colored prints such as photos, a series of ribbon panels impregnated with YMCK ink are passed over the substrate one after the other. Each section deposits dots of color which together result in the final image. A method called “dithering” is used to place dots of the different colors in close proximity to each other to create a final blended shade of any desired color when the card is viewed from a slight distance.

Monochrome printing is a very popular use for thermal ribbons since it produces clear, well-defined lines that can be easily read by barcode scanners. UV fluorescing ink can be used instead of black for this purpose if desired. Such single color printing using resin ribbons can be done at very high speeds. Thermal ribbon resin is prized for its durability and dries almost instantly to a smudge proof finish. It is resistant to fading caused by exposure to sunlight. Thermal printing can also be applied to paper cardstock using wax based ink ribbon with a light topcoat.

About Dye Sublimation Ribbons

Sublimation is simply the term used to indicate that a solid dye is heated directly into its gaseous form without becoming a liquid in between. The sublimated dye in these ribbons turns to gas at around 250 degrees Fahrenheit. An additional 100 degrees of heat causes the polymers in the card surface or transfer film to become porous. The dye can then penetrate and saturate the plastic and bond chemically with it as the card cools down.

Dye sublimation images are noted for their rich and vibrant appearance. This printing process allows the colors in photographic images to be duplicated with great accuracy. The temperature of the elements in the printhead can be adjusted minutely as the ribbon passes through. The higher the heat is turned up, the greater the amount of dye released onto the printed surface. This finely tuned process allows different levels of opacity or transparency to be achieved and makes layered colors blend beautifully in any combination.


As with thermal printing, colors are applied to the card one panel at a time. Dye based ribbons use only YMC, so a black thermal transfer resin sheet is sometimes added to each sequence for printing clearer text. Dye sublimation will not wear off the card from contact but is susceptible to fading when exposed to the sun’s UV rays. An additional UV resistant topcoat must be applied to dye printed cards for this reason.

Additional Ribbon Information

If you don’t need full color printing over the entire surface of each card, you can save money by purchasing “half panel” ribbons. These have short panels of YMC – just large enough to print an ID photo. The remaining panels are full size black resin and clear overcoat so text and finishing can be applied over the length of the card. Monochrome printing is another option for keeping things simple and these ribbons are available in many colors including red, blue, green, and gold. Ribbon cartridges are designed to snap in and out for easy replacement and are standard on many printer models.

Specialty “scratch off” thermal ribbon is available to temporarily cover the pin number or redemption code on phone cards and gift cards of all types. This means you can print short runs economically yourself and have a successful promotion. Dye sublimation cannot be used for scratch off purposes since the dye is always permanently incorporated into the card. However, since the scratch off panel is added as a separate step after the regular imprinting is finished, it can be layered over either dye or resin printed cards. Holographic ribbons can add extra security to any of your cards as a finishing lamination step.

Ribbon-free technology also exists for some direct thermal printer models. These printers are designed to work with cards that feature a heat sensitive layer. This layer of the card can be printed, erased, and reprinted many times. This is single color printing only, so text and monochrome logos are ideal for display on rewriteable cards.

For more information about Choosing your Card Printer Ribbons contact our experienced sales team.

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